Australia and Papua New Guinea enjoy a special relationship – one of mutual affection, shared history and shared geography. Today, as they have for more than two decades, ministers will meet at the Australia-PNG Ministerial Forum to build even closer ties for the years ahead.

The Australia-PNG relationship is one of this Government’s highest foreign policy priorities. I believe there is still so much more we can do to deepen the relationship, including moving on from stereotypes. We should not think of the relationship in terms of aid-donor and aid-recipient – rather we need to treat each other as equal partners.

PNG is undergoing an economic transformation thanks to a resources boom. Energy projects have enormous potential to grow the PNG economy and provide unparalleled opportunities for the country.

A new middle class is emerging in PNG, including a new generation of young leaders and entrepreneurs, many of whom I was pleased to meet at last month’s Australia-PNG Emerging Leaders Dialogue.

At the same time, PNG is an increasingly important regional player, assisting in combating the people-smuggling trade and hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in 2018.

Today’s forum provides an opportunity to take our relationship with PNG to the next level, to reflect the rapid changes occurring within our nearest neighbour and to ensure a relationship that endures based on an economic and strategic partnership.

We will discuss expanding trade and investment ties and strengthening people-to-people links. This includes establishing an Australia-PNG Network to encourage stronger ties between businesses and create an online space for collaboration. Using the annual the Emerging Leaders Dialogue as a showcase, the network will bring together sister city, school and twinning arrangements, providing a point of contact for organisations wanting to create closer bonds.

Australia is also supporting PNG’s establishment of a sovereign wealth fund to help ensure the economic gains from the resources sector translate into real outcomes for the people of PNG through sustainable and responsible extraction of resources. In time, the resource industry can play a part in improving the standard of living for the people of PNG – boosting access to health care and education, building infrastructure and providing skilled jobs for local people.

The Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan, announced yesterday, will see Australian undergraduates study and undertake internships in the region. We hope PNG will become involved in the New Colombo Plan after the pilot phase in 2014, which would ensure a deeper understanding between both countries and enrich the learning experience of young Australians.

The forum will also look closely at Australia’s development assistance to PNG to ensure it reflects our shared priorities and is based on mutual obligations and accountability. PNG remains one of our largest aid programs and we are working closely to ensure not only sustainable improvements to quality of life for all PNG people, but also greater confidence for business and investors.

To continue to improve economic confidence, we are strengthening cooperation between our police forces to help improve law and justice in PNG by deploying 50 Australian Federal Police officers to work alongside the Royal PNG Constabulary.

Other initiatives include sports partnerships, diplomatic training, and closer ties between our Treasury officials and election authorities.

I have a great personal love of PNG that began as a 14-year-old writing to my pen pal in PNG. My sister was a medical intern in Port Moresby in the 1970s. My niece is going to PNG next year to teach in Goroka. I have visited PNG on a number of occasions and am looking forward to my first visit as foreign minister in early 2014.

Photo by Flickr user kabl1992.